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Oscar nominations: Chasing the final cut

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Watching the Oscars® on TV is fun and glamorous - compared to the rough and tumble struggle for a Best Picture nomination, which is worth a fortune in free publicity – win or lose.

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To get the back story on this high-anxiety process, especially promoting the greatly challenged small independent films, two Hollywood film veterans candidly revealed their real-life experiences behind the cameras.

Marc Halperin and his wife, Marla Lewin Halperin, have won their share of making the final cut in production, distribution and publicity. As in any business, they’ve had their share of disappointments, too. For them it’s all a continuing learning process to stay in the game.

Over the past twenty-five years Marc has worked on thirteen Academy Award-winning films and forty-eight that received Oscar® nominations. He was involved in production and distribution of films like Fanny and Alexander, Cinema Paradiso, My Left Foot and The Crying Game, and he worked at Universal to re-release five missing Hitchcock films.

Marc is proud of the many movies he has helped to guide through major film festivals, including the Palm Springs Film Festival with Before Night Falls, which gave Javier Bardem his first Academy Nomination. Marla recounted how the film Shine introduced Geoffrey Rush - who then went on to win the Oscar® and a star career. After also winning a Golden Globe, Rush gleefully said to the Halperins, “Now Tom Cruise knows who I am!”

Marla and Marc met at a Palm Springs Film Festival where he had brought a film with the then unknown actor, Russell Crowe. After five films and three parties, they realized they a shared an addiction to film, and they have been together ever since.

Last year, one of the Halperin’s festival campaigns was for The Snitch Cartel which picked up awards and went on to be released in theaters around the country. Its star, Manolo Cardona, was signed for two US television pilots.

One summer, Marc had a film called Saving Grace, and Marla suggested handing out some promos the company created of rye grass seed packets at a Further concert (former Grateful Dead musicians). They called it 'grass-roots publicity' and the movie turned out to be a big summer hit.

In previous years, the Academy Award nominations weren't announced until February so there was still time to show films to academy voters at the Palm Springs Film Festival and in LA. It was during this time that films also made the majority of their income. Now that the foreign language 'short list' comes out before Christmas it destroys a great deal of the potential audience. The shortened season has had a big negative impact on many levels for the independent film world.

This year there were 76 films competing and they would have all attracted business for those released prior to the nominations. But with the early 'short list' announcement only nine will get significant attention, and most of these aren’t even available in the marketplace.

The January announcement of the nominations then launches a six-week frenzy for art houses audiences to see the five award nominees. An Academy win means approximately two weeks of enhanced attention.

This year, the Halperins have been working on several Academy Award campaigns, including The Great Passage, directed by Yuya Ishii. It’s Japan’s official Best Foreign Film contender. Variety’s Sydney-based film critic, Russell Edwards, wrote "Take a look at The Great Passage yourself and see how this elegantly simple and emotionally potent film sneaks up on you to warm the heart and soul." It also received a wonderful review from the LA Times and sold out at the Palm Springs Film Festival this year.

Marc says emotion sells movies, “If you can find the emotion in a film it is possible to make a connection with your prospective audience. And the original Japanese poster art was cool.” Marc found a way to show the love between the main characters in a subtle way and created a tagline that tied it all together. He believes that everything needs to truthful to the film. He created new artwork that was more American-audience friendly.

The Halperins know that filmmakers need to have their materials ready to go when the film is opening and the materials have to be right for their specific target audience. Creating the right campaign is an art form of its own.
They focus on creating the artwork, building ads, writing press-kits and overseeing the creation of trailers. There is so much involved and often not a lot of time or money to get it done. That’s how Marc helped build companies like Miramax.

The Halperins were perhaps understating the case when they said that “having more time and money to work with helps.” This year, two of the films which placed on the short list easily spent $200,000, and surely spent much more since Marla and Marc generated so much media coverage at major festivals from Tribeca and Cannes in May, 2013.

Marc and Marla gladly work with a filmmaker’s budget if they think their contribution can make a difference with the film. They emphasized that the countries of origin also benefit greatly both in additional film production and in increased tourism.

For example, with a film like this year’s official Japanese Best Picture hopeful The Great Passage, Marla said, “One learns so much about the beauty of the culture and the Japanese that it’s in the best interests of the government and the consulates to support our efforts; this can definitely make a difference for them as well.

“When AOL merged with Time Warner, they immediately cut production and art divisions. We decided we would start our own company, Magic Lamp, a division of Global Film Village, Inc.” Marc's first act after leaving New Line was to book a hotel suite in Seattle just to chill and see films for an entire month as the festival ran 27 days. Marla had her first job promoting a film there, starring Ann Margaret, Penelope Anne Miller and Angus McFadden. So including a later trip to Cannes, they had almost two months of movie madness.

As soon as the Halperins announced their company in Variety they quickly had five films to release, the first was a film directed by Rob Morrow, called Maze with Laura Linney, who had just won an Academy Award. Then they did a film called Scratch, a feature-length documentary about hip-hop DJing, aka Turntablism, and Sex and Lucia, directed by the master Julio Medem. Marc had distributed Medem’s last film at Fine Line Features and felt that this one could do far more business. It grossed three times more at the box office and launched the star career of Spanish actress Paz Vega.

The film won many awards in Seattle, and Marla had to write a new media kit for the American press in June to compete with all the summer block-busters coming out - just to get attention. Now thirteen years later, each film they promote is still unique, and needs a special plan all its own. “That is what makes this business interesting because outside of the studio tent every new film is uniquely different,” Marla explains.

One day, Marc got a call from a lawyer he knew from his Miramax days to take on a campaign for The Kite by a female director from Lebanon. It had won the Silver Lion in Venice, but it was unknown in America.

The Halperin’s had scant time to transform the film's initial poster artwork to attract a universal audience. Marc emphasized the love story and softening the look of the 'concentration camp' image. They focused on the young people at the core of the story and made the barbed wire setting look dreamlike. The kite became more heart shaped and the story became more intriguing. The new key art became the official look of the film and was used to successfully sell the film in the international marketplace.

During the recent Palm Springs International Film Festival, Marc and Marla were interviewed online by the Desert Sun newspaper about the ins and outs their profession of marketing film at festivals around the world with an eye on winning major awards. We highly recommend this revealing video on Vimeo for an exciting look behind the scenes of going for box-office hit and an Oscar, among other prestigious international awards.

Click on the Slideshow and Video we've included with this article. And be sure to 'Subscribe' free to receive all of our future stories on Examiner.com.

Written by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle

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